Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Fixing" Venezuela

An OpEd from the New York Times
LIMA, Peru — The recent news from Venezuela has been troubling — and also far from surprising. As the Venezuelan economy continues to struggle and inflation pushes many of the most basic everyday needs out of reach of ordinary working people, President Nicolás Maduro has responded, not with a plan, but with a crackdown. It has included arresting Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, and other opposition figures on questionable charges — to say nothing of the jailings of peaceful protesters.

Mr. Maduro’s attempts to deflect criticism by pointing to aggression from the United States and international meddling — even if they were rooted in fact — would do nothing to solve Venezuela’s problems. If he were a serious leader, he would look first at the Venezuelan economy, which, in reality, is at least two economies, separate and far from equal.

Despite its reputation for redistribution, Venezuela has seen rising inequality. Even as ordinary Venezuelans have seen their purchasing power shrink in the face of rapidly rising inflation, the elite has relied on the growing strength of its access to dollars, a dichotomy that throws Venezuela’s ever more unequal economy into sharp relief.

Venezuela’s economic problems extend beyond inequality and poverty. Over the long term, Venezuela must follow the lead of other Latin American nations and reorient its economy away from dependence on the volatile oil export market. It must develop its other resources and capacities across a broad spectrum of more labor-intensive industries like manufacturing or agricultural processing. But that long-term problem is no reason not to attempt to tackle inequality today.

The tools for doing so vary in complexity and difficulty, but they offer an array of approaches for a government committed to the issue.

One crucial tool is the combination of tax collection and fiscal policy. Improved tax collection raises revenues without raising rates, and those revenues enable investments in health care, early childhood education, primary and secondary education, job training and agricultural education programs that offer the poor a chance to improve their lives.

Another tool is direct support, which often takes the form of increases in funding and improvements in the reach of traditional, long-established programs like pensions for the elderly and unemployment insurance.

But newer, more innovative approaches also show great promise. One is conditional cash transfers: payments made directly to poor families so long as they meet certain conditions, such as keeping their teenage children in school. While I was president of Peru, we had particular success with conditional cash transfers (known there as Juntos). A World Bank study credited Juntos with a 5 percent cut in the poverty gap in just a few years, and showed positive ancillary effects as well, including increased food consumption and more reliable use of health care services by young children and pregnant mothers.

Through these and other interventions, Latin American governments in recent years have shown that fighting inequality is possible. Between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Latin America was slashed to 29 percent from 42 percent, while those in extreme poverty fell to 11.5 percent from 18 percent. Ameliorating inequality isn’t easy, but it’s an essential way to help ease the political turmoil during tough economic times.

Fixing the economy, however, is only one of the tasks facing Mr. Maduro. The second is going to be tougher: He must shed the conspiratorial mind-set and authoritarian instincts he has carried over from the regime of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and accept that true democracy includes dissent, and that means he won’t always get his way.

Freeing the jailed opposition leaders is the first step; acknowledging that the protesters have valid concerns and a right to express them a necessary second. Sadly, we have seen no sign that Mr. Maduro understands that, or that he is willing to change. Until he does, the international community must keep up external pressure to match the internal pressure being generated in the streets.

The reality is that fighting against inequality and fighting for democracy go hand in hand. When gains are more widely shared, the economy isn’t the only beneficiary: Democracy gets a boost, too. Democratic societies that are more economically equal tend to be notably deeper democracies, with broader participation and more widely shared power and decision making.

Improvements in one area can have salutary effects in another. As people feel that their labor is being rewarded, and that the fruits of success are more widely shared, they are more inclined to view themselves as citizens, with rights and responsibilities. Similarly, when people feel that the rule of law is strong, and that democracy is sound, they are more likely to make the investments of both capital and labor that are the foundations of long-term economic growth.

The road forward for Venezuela, as for many other nations facing similar problems, won’t be easy, and change won’t come overnight. But arrests and denial are unquestionably not the answer. Venezuela, Latin America and the world deserve better.

Alejandro Toledo, the author of “The Shared Society,” was president of Peru from 2001 to 2006.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Me Gustas Cuando Callas

ME gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

Como todas las cosas están llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mía.
Mariposa de sueño, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolía.

Me gustas cuando callas y estás como distante.
Y estás como quejándote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
déjame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.

Déjame que te hable también con tu silencio
claro como una lámpara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.
- Pablo Neruda, "Poema 15"

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Are Peace Talks w/FARC Dead?

It's probably time to put the rebels out of their misery... for good.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Life of a Middle Class Venezuelan...

...or what it's like to live under a corrupt criminal-supportive government (aka - America after 20 years of political "Progress")

Friday, April 17, 2015

“No Peace in Colombia without Freedom in Venezuela”

from the PanAm Post
As peace talks between the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government continue, many debating positions have been criticized, such as the announcement by members of the guerrilla group that they won’t accept any deal that involves jail time for former fighters, and the creation of a Historic Commission of the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV).

In an interview with the PanAm Post, the president of the National Committee for Victims of the Guerrilla, Fernando Vargas Quemba, argued that the peace process “ignores justice and endorses impunity.”

The Committee is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 which works to defend the rights of victims and secure justice.

Vargas himself is a direct victim of the Colombian guerrilla, who forced several members of his family off their land and killed others. Around three years ago, he was unharmed in an attempted shooting while he was with his young children — and his judicial complaints to the authorities have since been rejected.

What’s your view of the peace process between the Colombian government and FARC?

We’re determined that the peace process in Havana doesn’t enshrine impunity. We’ve said it before: they can negotiate about whatever they want, but they can’t negotiate away the right to justice.

Guerrilla groups are carrying out extortion, sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers, seizing land, and murdering people. Narco-traffickers aren’t the original cause of the violence in Colombia; it was the guerrilla that began murdering and extorting people.

Every Colombian president has tried to negotiate with FARC. We’ve been opposed to this; we’re against impunity. The guerrilla have never attacked Colombia’s political class nor the business elite, they direct their attacks against the poorest.

When we see that the Colombian guerrilla are supported at the negotiating table and depend on the help of the Venezuelan government and that of Cuba, we can see that this won’t end in peace. What they want to do is to put the FARC and its political cadres before the victims.

The FARC have said that they’re not going to spend a single day in jail, that they’re not going to hand over their weapons, that they’re going to keep their lands. They’ve also asked for the armed forces to be reduced.

What this means is that those of us who don’t die in the conflict, we’ll continue dying in the post-conflict situation. During the peace process, the armed forces are being reduced and the enemy is becoming more powerful.

The left here has hugely manipulated historical memory, and when I say the “left,” I’m referring to the political cadres of the FARC, who are an armed wing of the Communist Party. Nowadays, the Communist Party is not at the negotiating table; the only way to guarantee the constitutional order is for them to sit at the table.

This Historic Commission of the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV) created in December 2014 is another of the propagandistic instruments that the false peace process with FARC has created. The government has set this up with 12 members of the left, one that could be described as neutral, and another that could go either way. They haven’t taken us into account at all.

Do you think that successive governments have abandoned the victims of the conflict?

It seems as though all of Colombia’s governments have supported the guerrilla groups. We’ve never been able to understand it.

In the 1990s, as a result of denouncements at the national and international level, we suffered criminal punishment ourselves: half of the members of our directing council were killed, and we received absolute silence from the government. Presidents Gaviria, Samper, and Pastrana never spoke out about these murders.

It’s shocking that every time FARC threatens us with pamphlets, emails, or phone calls, both the national government and the United Nations don’t say anything. It’s a complete and complicit silence, a clear message to the victimizers that they can go ahead and kill us.

The government has never called on or sat down with the organizations that have historically represented the victims of the guerrilla.

Do you have an approximate figure for the number of victims?

Ten years ago there were 300,000 victims of the guerrilla. Nowadays the government total has put it at 7 million, applauded by sectors of the left. This is totally false: Colombia doesn’t have 7 million victims. By inflating this figure, they earned a huge budget, and within this figure of 7 million victims they included four or five points of the national unemployment figures.

I can assure you that of the 7 million people, we’ll find that in reality there are no more than 500,00 people.

It’s better for the government to say that the conflict has had 7 million victims than to admit that Colombia has high unemployment rates. The unemployment discredits the government more than victims of the guerrilla.

What’s the relationship between the Colombian guerrilla and the Venezuelan government?

In Colombia, we’re still left with the burden of the guerrilla, supported and financed by the Cuban and Venezuelan government.

It’s no secret that when Hugo Chávez was campaigning in Venezuela, he came to Colombia and met regularly with the ELN [National Liberation Army] and stayed in the house of Gustavo Petro, of the M19 [guerrilla movement]. Later when he came to the presidency of Venezuela, he made a speech in which he said that the FARC were a Bolivarian movement.

In Colombia, we know that FARC has a rearguard in Venezuela, that the traffic of narcotics has grown up along routes from Venezuela, and that they’re indoctrinating and giving terrorist training to Chavista organizations in our neighboring country.

We won’t achieve peace while Venezuela doesn’t achieve freedom. As long as Venezuela isn’t free, Colombia will never have peace, because it’s from there that the political and military support of the Colombian guerrilla is undeniably financed.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Can you Hear the Pots Banging, Obama?

I didn't think so...'d rather celebrate 21st Century Socialism

Friday, April 3, 2015

In Venezuela, Socialism Means Never Having to Say, "I'm Sorry"

from Yahoo News
HUGO CHAVEZ OIL BELT, Venezuela (AP) — You can't miss it, rising off the main highway, a mountain of toxic soot towering over the flat, sunbaked scrubland of eastern Venezuela.

The buildup of petroleum byproduct known as coke isn't just an environmental hazard polluting the air of neighboring communities. It's a potent symbol of the waste and unfulfilled promise of an oil industry more vital than ever to Venezuela's economic health.

For years, state-run oil monopoly PDVSA exported coke to great profit. But a 2009 fire knocked out a conveyer belt used to transport it to waiting ships. Exports have all but stalled ever since, and the residue has been piling up, representing millions of dollars a day in lost revenue at a time of a deep economic crisis marked by widespread shortages and galloping 68 percent inflation.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The black dunes sit at the gateway to what was long known as the Orinoco Belt and which last year was renamed the Hugo Chavez Oil Belt, in honor of the late president. The Costa Rica-sized area is home to the world's largest oil reserves and about half of Venezuela's current production. Chavez traveled to this region, which was settled by American oil companies in the 1930s, when he decided to end foreign ownership of the country's oil wealth

"There can be no socialism if our country doesn't have control of its resources," Chavez declared on May Day 2007, announcing he would rip up contracts with foreign oil companies worth billions of dollars.

But economic mismanagement, compounded by the recent plunge in prices, has created serious problems for the oil business, analysts say.

Following a 2002-2003 strike, Chavez drove out thousands of workers at PDVSA and bloated its payrolls with government supporters who lacked training and experience. As he drained a windfall from record oil prices to spend on social projects, the company fell behind on its bills and investment slowed. The result, analysts say, has been a steady decline in production from 3.3 million barrels a day in 1998, the year before Chavez took office, to the current estimated 2.4 million barrels.

The industry's decline is evident throughout the oil belt, from the stalled construction of six upgraders needed to transport the region's tar-like crude, to the mostly empty lots where Chavez signed deals to drill with anti-American allies such as Belarus, Cuba and Iran.

Workers taking a late-afternoon water break along a dirt road said that six months ago their employer, PDVSA contractor Tucker Energy Services, was asking them to ready as many as six new wells a week. Now it's down to half that and they fear it could drop even more.

"We're the checkbook of Venezuela, so if we go under so will the country," said technician Argenis Santos.

President Nicolas Maduro, whose approval rating has plunged to around 25 percent, has no choice but to lean on PDVSA to help Venezuela back on its feet and has been quietly trying to lure back some of the jilted foreign drillers.

Even in its hobbled state, oil remains the economy's lifeblood, accounting for 96 percent of exports. And unlike hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. or the development of deep-water oil fields in Brazil, both threatened by an almost 50 percent tumble in oil prices since September, the sheer volume of easily extractable crude in Venezuela should make production profitable at almost any price, albeit less so at current levels.

While output in the belt has expanded gradually, it has declined in older oil fields elsewhere and economists say projects here are moving too slowly to provide relief from the crisis or come close to meeting Chavez's goal of producing 6 million barrels a day by 2019. Some of the state-owned companies Chavez brought in to replace the private drillers, such as PetroVietnam and Malaysia's Petronas, have either halted production or pulled out because of economic turbulence in Venezuela and disagreements with Maduro's cash-strapped government.

Meanwhile, U.S. petroleum exports to Venezuela, much of it fuel additives to dilute the country's heavy crude, have grown twelvefold in the past decade as domestic refineries go unmaintained.

PDVSA did not make any official available despite repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview.

Traveling around the long-neglected region it's easy to see why Chavez's decision to give Big Oil the boot remains popular.

In the town of San Tome, the tree-lined worker camps built by Andrew Mellon's Gulf Oil attest to the discriminatory living conditions that prevailed for decades. The Americans enjoyed a country club setting in what's still known as North Camp; their Venezuelan co-workers lived in the less spacious South Camp across the road.

Francisco Rivas Lara, who started in Venezuela's oil industry in the 1940s as a teenage office assistant for Texaco, believes nationalization was the correct path after decades of domination by foreign multinationals. But he says corruption and the preference for politics over developing skilled professionals are to blame for the industry's current malaise.

"Private companies don't have a country or a heart, and money has no homeland," said Rivas Lara, who now heads the oil engineering program at Venezuela's National Experimental University of the Armed Forces. "The problem is people confused socialism with laziness, villainy and theft."

Amid the mounting economic pressures, Maduro has loosened some of the country's rigid controls on foreign investment. In exchange for loans, companies get greater control over projects and access to Venezuela's most favorable exchange rate. So far, Spain's Repsol and Chevron have taken up the offer.

Investors were also heartened by last year's replacement of longtime oil czar Rafael Ramirez with the lower-profile Eulogio Del Pino, a Stanford University-educated technocrat who is seen as a less political PDVSA president.

But analysts said most companies are investing the minimum while waiting for the business environment to improve. Meanwhile, the cash crunch has grown so severe that Maduro has floated the idea of selling PDVSA's American subsidiary, Citgo. He's also vowed to raise the world's cheapest gasoline prices that many Venezuelans consider a birthright.

Such steps, if taken, seem unlikely to ease the economic crisis, however.

"It will be a miracle if they maintain production at current levels," said Richard Obuchi, an economist and energy specialist in Caracas. "The industry needs a major boost of investment but that's impossible given the economic uncertainty."